San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 31st, 2009
County budgets more HTGCD funding

Left to right: Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley, Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) attorney Greg Ellis, and HTGCD co-general manager Dana Carmean. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Following a contorted process in which a local groundwater district couldn’t agree with local state legislators on a funding bill, Hays County commissioners appear ready to increase the district’s funding from the county.

Commissioners intend to provide $100,000 in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget to the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD), the same amount of money the district may have generated on its own had its governing body not rejected a funding bill offered by legislators this spring.

The elected board members of HTGCD, the governmental entity tasked with managing groundwater in western Hays County, asked State Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) and State Representative Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs) at the start of this year’s legislative session to grant it full Chapter 36 status common for groundwater districts throughout the state. Rose and Wentworth declined, instead offering legislation that may have provided up to $200,000 over two years.

HTGCD’s board voted to reject the legislators’ proposal, then offered a compromise version of the legislation it had proposed earlier. Rose and Wentworth decided to not move forward with any legislation for HTGCD, which received $75,000 from Hays County in the county’s 2009 budget. Commissioners considered that allocation a temporary expense, believing HTGCD would work out a deal for state funding going forward.

Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) support continuing to support the district with county funds, but criticized HTGCD for rejecting the legislators’ proposal.

“When I’m in Vegas, I take bigger risks when I’m playing with my brother-in-law’s money,” Barton told HTGCD attorney Greg Ellis at the Aug. 11 commissioners court meeting. “And I feel a little bit like some members of the district board felt insulated from risk because they had the county’s money to play with. When I first came on this commission, (county money given to HTGCD) was to be one-year stop-gap funding … until we got funding from the legislature. And then we got to the legislature and (you) said, ‘Well, that’s not enough, we want more and better funding sources.'”

The proposed FY 2010 county budget includes $100,000 for HTGCD, which has jurisdiction over 54 percent of the county’s land mass. The county has allotted $75,000 to HTGCD in its last two budgets. In June, after turning down the legislators’ proposal, HTGCD asked commissioners for $250,000.

HTGCD Board Member Andrew Backus (District 3) said in June that HTGCD usually receives about $80,000 per year but needs about $400,000 per year to effectively do its job.

Groups such as Take Back Texas and individuals like Hays County property owner Mark Key say all HTGCD board members except Greg Nesbitt (District 2) have a “no growth agenda.” Key spoke at the Aug 25 commissioners meeting to oppose more county funds going to HTGCD. Citizens for Responsible Development representative James McMeans, who was at the Aug 11 meeting to support allocating county money to HTGCD, said his group is not against growth, just unsustainable growth.

Conley, whose precinct includes the Wimberley Valley, said more “independent” research needs to be done on the Trinity Aquifer if effective means of recharging it are to be found. Volunteers conduct a large percentage of scientific investigations initiated by HTGCD.

HTGCD President Doug Wierman (District 1) said in an email Saturday that all of HTGCD’s scientific work is performed by or under the supervision of professional geoscientists licensed by the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists, whether they are paid or volunteers. Conley said Friday that research conducted by paid professionals is more objective and credible than work performed by volunteers.

“Knowing who the volunteers are and their background, it’s more valuable than paid work,” said Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) on Aug 25.

Ellis, who is also Executive Director of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, responded to Conley’s concerns voiced on Aug 11 by saying that he would trust conclusions reached by volunteers, as long as he could verify that they use the proper scientific procedures.

“On the other hand,” Ellis said, “in lots and lots of cases, where you have two people in the exact same field with the exact same degrees, you reach the exact opposite conclusions about an aquifer, based on who it is that hired them and how much they were being paid to reach that particular conclusion.”

Ellis said the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) has not expressed concern about HTGCD’s scientific results so far. Conley said last week that he is unmoved by Ellis’ reasoning, reiterating that not enough independent research has been conducted. Conley said he would tie county funds received by HTGCD to paid professional research, if he could.

“I don’t have the votes on the court to do that,” Conley said. “They could use all the $100,000 on lawyers if they wanted to. Or lobbying the state legislature if they wanted to. That’s the way it is set up today.”

Ellis said HTGCD would use the $100,000 for the operations of the district, part of which would be for scientific work and paying district personnel. Ellis said that in return for funding the district, HTGCD would assist the county with plat reviews and water availability studies.

HTGCD has declared a moratorium on any new pumping permits until the TWDB issues the managed available groundwater number, which will set a limit on how many water pumping permits can be legally issued by HTGCD. Ellis said the district is granting no new permits, so will not have to revoke them later.

“In the next year, the role of this district is going to change dramatically,” Ellis said at the Aug 11 meeting. “And that is because the deadline for setting the desired future conditions is in 2010. And once we set that desired future condition, which basically is a description of what we want these aquifers to look like over the next 50 years, the (Texas Water) Development Board is gong to be issuing what they call a ‘managed available groundwater number.’ And this district is duty-bound at that point then to issue permits up to that number to insure we achieve that desired future condition … It’s going to be very difficult for this district to do so because they are so limited in their authority and so limited in their funding.”

Hays County residents voted to create the HTGCD in 2000. The district was structured in 1999 according to the designs of Wentworth, then-State Representative Rick Green (R-Dripping Springs), then-Hays County Judge Jim Powers (R-Dripping Springs), and others. Had residents voted against creating the district, the state would have imposed one on the county with all the authority granted to GCDs under Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code, which is the authority district officials wished to obtain during this year’s legislative session.

As it turned out, HTGCD was created without the ability to collect ad valorem taxes or charge well production fees. HTGCD’s enabling legislation also bans the district from requiring permitting of all domestic wells pumping less than 25,000 gallons, regardless of acreage, and the district cannot require the permitting of a well used for “conventional farming and ranching activities,” regardless of acreage or the amount of water pumped. The only way the district can fund its operations is by charging new well construction fees and one-time utility connection fees, both of which are capped at $300.

“From 2006-2007, (the number of new wells) was cut in half,” Ellis said. “It’s cut in half again by 2009. So we’re bringing in one-quarter of the amount of money we brought in in 2006 because the number of registered wells has gone down. Now, quite honestly, that’s a good thing for the aquifer … but by tying our funding to the number of wells that are drilled, the legislature, in fact, actually requires us either to forego funding or to forego doing our job. That’s an untenable situation that cannot continue. We’re going to have to get the legislature at some point to fix it.”

Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said she has supported more funding mechanisms for HTGCD since 2000, when she campaigned for the district’s creation and for its initial board members. Sumter said that because Jacob’s Well stopped for the first time that year, there was an increased sense of urgency to create a GCD. Sumter said that if residents had opposed the creation of the district, they might have gotten one with full Chapter 36 authority, though it might have taken too long, which is why she would still have supported creating, in her words, a “gutted” GCD if given a second chance.

Three current board members have contributed money to Sumter’s re-election campaign. At a June 21 event, Doug and Constance Wierman contributed $75, HTGCD board member Jack Hollon (District 5) gave $100 and David Baker (District 4) contributed $50. Baker is also Executive Director of Wimberley Valley Watershed Association (WVWA), an organization “dedicated to protecting our region’s water quality and quantity by promoting sustainable watershed management through community education, conservation, and land protection,” according to its website.

WVWA board members Pokey Rehmet and Dorothy Knight gave $50 and $25 to Sumter’s campaign, respectively, on June 21. Former board member Joe Day (District 4) contributed $50 the same day.

Hollon contributed $100 to Ford in September 2008. Ford, has been a vocal advocate of full Chapter 36 authority for HTGCD. Just before Ford voted for the March 3 resolution for greater HTGCD authority, she said the legislature was not likely to support full Chapter 36 for HTGCD, so it was better to get “something, not nothing,” and work for more later.

Conley told Ellis on Aug 11 that if HTGCD board members had supported the March 3 resolution, Rose and Wentworth may have been more willing to give the district more power and funding mechanisms. Sumter abstained from voting on the resolution, citing her opposition, echoed later by HTGCD’s board, to an item added at the last moment that asked the legislature to exempt “existing residential well owners” from permitting and metering, and insure “certain lot owners with no other access to water” be entitled to pumping permits from HTGCD.

The Rose-Wentworth proposal would have allowed HTGCD to generate up to $100,000 per year for two years by charging utility customers served by wells pumping more than 25,000 gallons per day a $2.00 per month fee to finance a study of the aquifer. At the Aug. 11 meeting, Ellis told commissioners that the Rose-Wentworth proposal suffered from “very serious legal infirmities.”

Said Ellis, “As soon as we adopted that rule, we would have been sued, and probably would have been in the courts for the entire two years that that funding was supposed to have been available, and would have been spending all that additional money that we didn’t have on trying to defend the fee rather than on collecting the fee. The problems with the fee were there were equal protection problems, meaning it was not designed to hit all the pumpers. There was a problem in that it was not voted on by the people. It was a flat tax, if you will, per meter, as opposed to funding based on how much groundwater was being pumped.”

HTGCD’s board members said the proposal offered by Rose and Wentworth in March unfairly charged only half of groundwater users a fee and contained no new regulatory authority. The proposal offered by HTGCD’s board to the legislators on April 24 contained five compromises, including a removal of eminent domain authority, a limit on property taxes authorized by a property tax election of no more than five  cents per $100 of valuation, and a limitation on the ability of the district to enter property to inspect exempt wells. Rose had said he was against granting HTGCD the power to enter private property. Wentworth and Rose said they opposed allowing residents of western Hays County to vote on whether to allow HTGCD to collect property taxes.

No HTGCD board members were at the Aug 11 meeting, which Barton said disappointed him because he had specifically asked for them to be there for their presentation, which was conducted instead by Ellis. HTGCD constituent and Henly resident Jimmy Skipton was at the meeting, expressing dismay that the elected board members had sent their lawyer on behalf of themselves, though he supported the county funding the district.

Hollon appeared before the commissioners court at an Aug 25 meeting to explain that “conflicting summer schedules” had prevented board members from participating in the presentation.

Public hearings on the proposed budget will take place at the Hays County Courthouse on Sept. 2 at 9 a.m., and on Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. County commissioners plan to vote on the final version of the budget after a 9 a.m. public hearing on Sept. 16.

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12 thoughts on “County budgets more HTGCD funding

  1. Great. Now the HTGD is going to be financed by everyone in the county, whether you have access to the water or not.

    “HTGCD’s board members said the proposal offered by Rose and Wentworth in March unfairly charged only half of groundwater users a fee.”

    I’m having trouble understanding their logic. But I do share their concern for water conservation. Just wish their skills in political negotiation were better honed.

    And by the way, a flat tax (in addition to a water charge) has been used by irrigation districts (and previously by water control and improvement districts) for going on 100 years.

  2. Since you posted the (rather meager) donations that HTGCD members have given to Judge Sumter & Commissioner Ford, how about posting how much developers have given to Conley and Barton? That might be interesting to see.
    FYI- Karen Ford was concerned about the environment long before she was elected to the Court. She has been active in the Hill Country Alliance well before she ran for the court. It is one of the reasons that I support her- I know that the quality of life that is important to us is something that matters to her, too. That quality of life means that we need water in the ground for our people who depend on well water, if not also in our creeks for wildlife. Many Hays County creeks are now just dry beds, due to the drought and the amount of pumping done by wells. It isn’t a “no growth” policy, it is a “smart growth.”
    We live with 100% rainwater. I will admit that it is sometimes a little dicey right now, but so far, we’ve only bought water once in the last 8 years- and that was in May when we bought 2,000 gallons. Since then, meager though the rain as been, it has been enough to keep us in water, conservative users that we are. If people will put in rainwater and not waste water, then they can still build as densely as before the new building code was passed. Rainwater IS not only possible, but a desired way to live in Hays County.
    For those who do depend on groundwater as their water source, the HTGCD is their protection- working very hard to be sure that those already here who have wells will continue to have access to water in their wells.
    We don’t need large San Augustine grass lawns here- that is wasteful and, frankly, shameful, that people would waste precious water so that they can have a “pretty: lawn which is entirely unsustainable in this area.

  3. If Patrick Rose had not failed so miserably to use any of his legislative energy or capital to provide some basic protections for our local groundwater resources, the HTGCD would not be relegated to coming to the County to beg for alms.

    Rose failed over and over again to help local citizens address water issues, getting only a special bill passed so the Salt Lick could become a vineyard with a lodge, spa and some million-dollar homes attached to it.

    Rose took credit for the million dollar grant to the River Systems Institute, but that had other people’s efforts written all over it. I think somebody simply threw Patrick an already-chewed bone so he wouldn’t look like a complete failure this past legislative session, at least as regards trying to save Hays County from becoming a desert community.

    Other GCD’s have the ability to levy small taxes on their citizens, but not so the Hays Trinty GCD. Rose’s “bill” would have levied a surcharge only on those people who buy their water through a water utility company. Not one cent of their funding would have come from the thousands of people who have private wells. Not one cent.

    What are Rose, Conley and Barton afraid of?

    Patrick Rose has been bought and paid for by developer interests who wish to see no controls whatsoever put on their ability to continue to promise suburban housing projects unlimited access to cheap groundwater.

    Water scarcity is hardly a theoretical construct anymore. Whether Will Conley believes it or not, there is a serious water shortage, not just around here, but across vast regions of Texas, the USA and the world.

    Business plans, ideologies and greed will not change this situation one iota for the better. Only water conservation or a drastic change in our climate can do that.

    As a people, we have some serious thinking to do on the subject of water. We will be ill-served by allowing politicians who owe their positions to water-thirsty industries to do our thinking for us.

  4. Like I said, those of us outside the HTGCD are more than glad to help you folks out by lending you a hand through a levy of countywide tax dollars – and paying the operational fees that the HTGCD Board failed to raise through leadership, creativity, and negotiation skills. I believe water is that important. But don’t be surprised when others disagree.

    It might help, however, if some of you found a way to be a bit more gracious about it. Criticizing Precinct 2 Commissioner Barton – who is voting in favor of funding the HTGCD – appears to me to be biting the hand that feeds you.

  5. As one who got blisters on his behind, lumps on his head, and frogs in his throat during the “Mother of All Water Wars” in the mid-’80’s to 1993 trial of Sierra Club, GBRA et al., V US Department of the Interior, City of San Antonio et al., I came away thrilled to see New Braunfels, San Marcos and GBRA vindicated by the creation in the Lege of a Special District equipped to deal with manyof the issues surrounding the limited water resource in the Balcones Fault Zone Edwards Aquifer. Both the Fifth Circuit Court in Midland and, finally, the LEGE, vindicated the notion that too many were dipping into the supply already to function on any realistically predictable annual yield of water to satisfy the growing pressure from new users and user growth projected by the mainly agricultural users in Medina and Uvalde Counties to the west; the municipal and industrial users who dominated Bexar County use, and the “municipal and RECREATIONAL” uses to which they ascribed the needs of San Marcos and New Braunfels. THEY–crops and industry–really NEEDED most of the annual yield, especially in drought years, but we just fished and swam in ours–the lowest priority of use. We would feed their lavish landscapes, golf courses, and “water features” like SIX FLAGS as streamflow dropped in the Comal, San Marcos, and Guadalupe basins down to and including the bays and estuaries and downstream cities, farms and industries needing adequate guaranteed annual supplies to SURVIVE. The $40B/year coastal fisheries were being held ransom for, in a word, deliberate sprawling urban development.

    It was the pure intent of the “big boys” and water hustlers punching big wells for purposes like “catfish farming” (agricultural, therefor a higher priority in law)–but intended to turn to “water-farming” by selling vested and allocated rights down the road for a premium, once the price per acre-foot got right.

    The whole thing was set against historical facts defined in geology, meteorology, biology, cyclic weather, and other factors. The Edwards had always had about the same historic yield, just around 400million acre-ft./year. At the end of the “drought of Record of the ’50’s, there were about 700K or so users in all classes, which dreid the Comal for months in 54-55 and slowed the San Marcos to a trickle. With the population now being well over a half-million people and growing every year, along with more “consumptive” uses, an impending train-wreck was obvious.

    A District formed from Chapter 52 of the Water Code would not do, would have in effect no effect at all, since the key enforcement was well-spacing, which works in much of Texas, in sand, but not in open-system Karst Acquifers like the Edwards. Whoever put in the biggest pump, or the largest num ber, could, IN TEXAS LAW, THROUGH THE “RIGHT OF CAPTURE,” legally drain the water from under all his meighbors, who had no recourse. Restrictions were virtually limited to well-completion specs, and not enough fees could be generated to operate more than a token District.

    When the Edwards Aquifer Authority was created, issues such as drought quotas, original firm allocations of rights, wet- and dry-year permits, historic rights to average use over time, water and rights-marketing, due process, means of regulation, costs per acre-foot, and whether to continue a strictly limited annual tax on users based on pumpage–whether the existing structure and guidelines of the old Edwards Underground Water District would suffice the new EAA. The Answer was no. The studies were done. The fights were fought. Most of the partisans –cities,farmers,developers, heirs, theme-and-golf resort owners–chased their own and their political interests. But finally, wisdom, morality, and downright luck allowed the “little guys” and the rice farmers ans shrimpers and chemical companies at the bay to hold their own. It’s not a perfect system, but for now fair, durable, and sustainable–IF this drought isn’t THE BIG ONE.

    All manner of talks, alliances, neighbor-agreements, co-op arrangements, management consolidations, etc, are being done viz the Barton Springs, Glen Rose Edwards, Trinity, Balcones Edwards, River Authorities, and other interests. Some are in it for survival, for insurance in time of need. Some are in it to grow at the expense of the system. Some are in it for the money and/or power, plain and simple. Push will come to shove, as Austin S.O.S., Barton Springs and Hamilton’s Pool have shown, along with wells going dry/brackish and people setting up lucrative and pesky hauling terminals.

    The County should help the District do what it MUST do, by direct funding, even with MY money, ONLY until it can be given the neccessaries from the State either to tax, charge fees, set prices, permit new wells, ASCERTAIN TOTAL PUMPAGE AND RECHARGE MODELS, monitor quality, etc.

    Be a good idea to have talks with the folks who have trod this road before, like Pat Cox, Bob Larsen, Todd Votteller, at GBRA, Glenn Longley, at TXState, some of the experienced hands and scientists at TPWD and TQEC. But do all to keep politics at bay–that only hamstrings the process by, most of the time, using damaged or pre-occupied brains.

    V

  6. Mayor Moore,

    Just wanted to say that the efforts made during that time period were truly extraordinary. It is very rare to see a comprhensive rational policy development model applied to legislation in this state. The efforts to protect the aquifer were so incredible in that they unified a WIDE variety of seemingly incompatible interest groups that understood that problems with the Edwards meant problems for everyone in some fashion.

    The County needs to fund HTGCD to help protect those early efforts and assure the Edwards achieves long-term sustainability. Hopefully legislatures will see that by the County Commissioners supporting it, they can safely give HTGCD the authority it needs without fear of their constituents.

  7. Again, right on Mayor. We could use 7 like Mayor Moore back on the Council dais, but I’d settle for 4…

  8. It may be worthwhile for Hays residents to note that the Honorable Jeff Wentworth represented Bexar County in the Big War, and that he was one of the impediments to giving the EAA the status and tools it needed. Favored a limited, hamstrung, West Texas style District unable to unify the resource or effectively conserve the water for the HUMAN BEINGS in Comal and Hays. Maybe he could be convinced?

  9. This is theft from the residents of the Edwards part of the county. It is also taxation without representation for them and the people on the east side of the county. I looked over the proposed bill from the H-T board and know for certain that A) it would have never passed out of the legislature B) would have never been signed by the Governor and C) would have been rejected by the voters of the district. One of the board members of the Barton Springs GCD said that bringing that proposal to the ledge would have been “political suicide” board members of various other Trinity districts in nearby counties were not impressed with this either. Now that the commissioner court has approved the larger minimum lot sizes the H-T has no business asking for water availability pump tests or reviewing subdivision plats. The figure of 400K $ to fund the district is one of the most divorced from reality statements ever. There are people who want to use very flimsy science to declare that as much water is being pumped as the aquifer can yield and stop letting anyone else drill any more wells. The water in a carbonate aquifer is entirely dependant on rainfall. lots of rain, lots of water. drought, no water. it does not mean that the aquifer is gone for good and drilling deeper might not fix your problem. If the Hays-Trinity proposal had been a lot more in line with other statutes that enable gcd’s in this state they would have had a much better chance at getting it passed. A prior poster said to keep politics at bay, unfortunately certain members of the H-T board have been among the worst political hacks. Carbonate porosity is a very beautiful thing, it provides science riddles to study for lifetimes. Aquifer politics is not. There is way too much personal agendas and politics masquerading as science in land use planning around here these days.

  10. There are some who say that we need better science before we really know the carrying capacity of the aquifer – they argue that, gee this is a complicated scientific question and we better not rush to judge until we get better scientific evidence. THAT IS THE SAME ARGUMENT USED BY GLOBAL WARMING DENIERS AND ANTI-EVOLUTIONISTS. It is merely a stall tactic used by those who have vested interests in keeping things status quo. The reality is that they will never accept evidence that doesn’t support their views. The commenter above exemplifies this with statements like “flimsy science”. Using his logic (“lots of rain, lots of water. drought, no water”), when we’re in a drought, our wells will go dry! That is not acceptable. The point is to manage the water so that even in a drought there will still be plenty of water in the aquifer. The comment has been made that this is an issue for the western portion of the county. It affects the whole county in the long run. This is not a question of scientific veracity; it is pure politics. Some of us are worried about water availability for the next generations, others worry only about their “right” to keep on pumping, regardless of who else it affects. I wish those people would drop their 3rd grade logic.

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